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Charlotte the stingray, the would-be mom, has died at her N.C. aquarium

An aquarium said in February that Charlotte, a round stingray, was pregnant, drawing international headlines. But the facility near Asheville, N.C., now says the ray is sick, not pregnant. In this image from an April video update by the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO, the ray has a noticeable bulge on her back.
Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO / Screenshot by NPR
An aquarium said in February that Charlotte, a round stingray, was pregnant, drawing international headlines. But the facility near Asheville, N.C., now says the ray is sick, not pregnant. In this image from an April video update by the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO, the ray has a noticeable bulge on her back.

Charlotte, the celebrity stingray who was declared to be pregnant without a male mate earlier this year, has died at the small aquarium where she lived in North Carolina. In a previous announcement, the aquarium called her condition “a rare reproductive disease.”

“We are sad to announce, after continuing treatment with her medical care team and specialist, our ray Charlotte passed away today,” the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO said on Facebook Sunday night. “We are continuing to work with her medical care team and research specialist.”

The aquarium added that it is now temporarily closed. It also thanked Charlotte’s fans for their support “while we navigate this great loss.”

The ray drew the limelight with rare news

The public initially fell in love with the Charlotte, a round stingray and apparent single mom, in February. That’s when her aquarium, a nonprofit in the small town of Hendersonville in western North Carolina, said she had seemingly become pregnant through a rare but known biological process called parthenogenesis.

The ray's purported miracle pregnancy had been held up as a unique example of asexual reproduction in her species. Charlotte’s story was covered internationally, and she was featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Saturday Night Live.

"I have been amazed at how much attention parthenogenesis attracts any time it is reported," Warren Booth, who studies facultative parthenogenesis and is an associate professor at Virginia Tech, told NPR, adding that asexual reproduction is much more common in invertebrates.

When aquarium founder Brenda Ramer discussed Charlotte’s news in early February, she said ray pups could be "due to be born any single minute."

Intense interest in Charlotte led people to drive for hours to stand in line outside the aquarium in Hendersonville, a small town near Asheville in western North Carolina, as they hoped for a chance to see Charlotte -- and possibly her pups. A downtown café named a latte in the ray's honor, and the town's tourism website saw a huge leap in traffic, as NPR reported.

Skepticism and sadness over ray’s fate

But as the pregnancy stretched well past the known timespan for traditional stingray births (the gestation period is normally from 3 to 4 months), the public’s fascination turned to concern. Criticisms also arose, as experts questioned the quality of veterinary care Charlotte received. There was particular skepticism after Ramer said the ray might have been impregnated by a male shark in her tank, possibly producing a shark-ray hybrid -- an idea that experts dismissed out of hand.

As excitement built over Charlotte the stingray, people hoping to see the animal lined up for admission to her home aquarium in Hendersonville, N.C.
Lydia Wilson /
As excitement built over Charlotte the stingray, people hoping to see the animal lined up for admission to her home aquarium in Hendersonville, N.C.

Finally, in late May, the aquarium announced that Charlotte was not pregnant but was instead suffering from a disease. Ramer did not identify the illness, but she maintained that the stingray had indeed been pregnant. In earlier messages, she said that two outside experts had confirmed the pregnancy diagnosis after the aquarium sent them images.

The aquarium’s owner has not granted multiple interview requests from NPR. While the aquarium’s team performed an ultrasound on Charlotte during a video stream on social media, no conclusive tests or other data regarding the animal’s medical condition were released to the public for potential review.

News of the stingray’s death is hitting her followers hard. One fan, Brandi Ford of Fremont, Calif., said that watching Charlotte’s pregnancy online had brought “a couple hours of loveliness and distraction” in her family’s life during an otherwise personally difficult time. “At least now, (Charlotte) is at peace,” she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Lydia Wilson